Plateliai, Lithuania


“Esther From Plateliai” Exhibition 2013


These images belong to Nilli Hillman

Esther Shapira from Plateliai:  Family History

Esther Shapira, my mother, was born in 1908 in Plateliai, called by the local Jews Plotel. She was the youngest daughter in the Shapira family. Her father, Yehuda Loeb Shapira, died when she was six years old and her mother, Bracha (Epstein), continued to run the Pharmacy, “Waistu Krautve Drogista B. Sapiro”, helped by Mina, the oldest daughter, from my grandfather’s first marriage.

Esther Shapira came to Israel in 1934. Wolf Shapira, my mother’s brother, was born in 1900. He was a Zionist and the first of the family to come to Israel. Rachel, my mother’s sister was born in 1904. She joined a Zionist group and went to Israel before my mother. Wolf got a certificate for my mother from the British Mandate Government. At that time immigration to Israel was limited by age quotas and required a special permit. Wolf also managed to save my grandmother, Bracha, who came to Israel before the holocaust.

Mina was married to Miron Kutsinsky, managed to escape to Russia, and there was some contact with them for a while until the Soviet Union closed to the world.

The rest of the family, were killed: They include: Yaakov, my mother’s older brother and his wife Sara with their 2 boys. Wolf tried to get a certificate for Yaakov but was refused. I have a pile of letters my uncle wrote to the British authorities, the mandate government in Palestine at that time, to the Jewish agency and other organizations, all refused his request. The last letter was dated 1937, informing Wolf that the quotes for people older than 45 were filled.

Ethel, my mother’s sister was married in 1934 to Bainish Duchin from yelenik, a short time before my mother left for Israel and they had one son. Another sister, Gita, was married to Yaakov Goldberg and probably lived in Plunge with their 4 children ( another brother named Uri drowned in the lake in unclear circumstances before the holocaust).

Yaakov, Ethel, Gita and the rest of the family were massacred. My mother named some 22 members of her family, who were murdered in the holocaust, some of them were from Plateliai, but I do not know if they were still living in Plateliai. Some of the family may have been living in Plunge, Telsiai or in other places.

My mother died in 1995 and never found out how or where her family died. Esther Shapira in Israel

My mother came to Israel in 1934 and in 1940 married my father, Simon Ventura – Ben- Ari, a seventh generation Sephardic Jew from Jerusalem. They lived in Jerusalem until 1955 and moved to Ramat Gan, near Tel-Aviv. Esther worked for many years for a daily newspaper “Haarez” and was responsible for administration of writers and journalists’ fees. She was respected and loved by everyone whom she touched in her life.

My parents had two daughters, me, the oldest and my sister Edna. Edna is a famous art curator in Israel and is married to Illan, a movie director and teacher. My Husband, Etan Hillman is an Economist and in recent years involved with Biotech investments. We have two children, Eyal and Naama. My mother loved them dearly. I have a PhD in Clinical and Medical Psychology from the University of Minnesota USA, and I work in my private clinic and teach graduate students in clinical psychology. We have three grandchildren, Ari and Eli, sons of Keren and Eyal and Tom, Son of Naama and Ohad Ezer, grandchildren of Ester Shapira from Plateliai.

Rachel, my mother’s sister, was married to Adam Vardi and they had one daughter, my cousin Talma, married to Dr. Pinchas Ovide , a Pediatrician. They live in the U.S and have two daughters, Shira and Daria. Wolf Shapira, my Mother’s brother, fought in the 1948 war of independence where he was wounded and lost a leg. He had for many years a wholesale pharmaceutical business in Jerusalem, thus, continuing the Shapira family tradition. He married Masha and had two daughters, Lea, who died at age 37 and Nira, widow of Gideon Netanel, who lives in a Kibbutz and has two daughters, Yael and Lilach, and two sons Roni and shy, (Shy died in a car accident when young). Nira has seven grandchildren.

My Mother’s memories from Lithuania

My mother liked to talk about her life in Lithuania. Although she lost her father at a young age, being the youngest daughter in the family, she received a lot of loving attention. I think she was home schooled for the first years, but when older she was sent to Hebrew school, first in Plunge (I am not sure) and later to the gymnasium in Telsiai, where she stayed with relatives. She graduated the Yavne teachers’ seminar there in 1927 and became a Hebrew teacher. I know that Telsiai was at the time an important center of Jewish culture. My mother had good memories from those years and made many friends.

She was sent to be a teacher in Antaliept, near Dussiat, where she made many friends among teachers in the area, attended meetings and worked hard to teach the children, most of them from poor families. (She wrote memories of this period in her life for a book about Dussiat). When she left to go to Israel she left behind many friends whom she corresponded with and had their pictures in an album she brought with her to Israel.

My mother used to tell us a lot about her life in Plateliai. Our childhood was full of stories about Plotel, about the big wooden house where they lived on the main street and the pharmacy on the first floor, and about daily life in Plateliai, and later on in school. She described the garden of the house with the cherry and apple trees and the change of seasons. The Pharmacy carried food supplies and apparently was like a general store in a small village.

My mother described the shtetle, the lake and the forest around it. We liked to hear about the cold winter and the frozen lake. Living in a warm country with a mild winter, it was hard to imagine this, and when we came to Minnesota and I saw a lake frozen in winter, it was like my mother’s stories coming to life. When we complained about the cold weather in winter, she would laugh and tell us about the snow and frozen days of her youth, or open the picture album to show us the pictures on the frozen lake or in the midst of heavy snow.

She loved to recall the forest, where they went to pick mushrooms and wild berries that grew there. In summer they went swimming in Lake Plateliai. She showed us pictures and promised to take us there one day to see the beauty of the lake and the forest. For a long time she still showed us the pictures of her family and we knew the names of our cousins, but eventually, when she understood what happened and knew they were dead, she stopped talking about them.

In hard times she used to talk about her childhood by the lake as something that empowered her for life. When she was sick with cancer and suffered pain, I tried to help her by suggesting going back in her imagination to a peaceful place. She would immediately begin to talk about Lake Plateliai and the forest and this helped her relax.

Just before she died and was medicated to help her with the cancer pain, I asked her how she felt and she said to me with her eyes closed, that the pain was gone and she was near her beloved lake in Plotel. She died peacefully with a smile on her face.

It was not before September 0f 2011 that I came to visit Plateliai with my husband. We met with Eugenijus Bunka who showed us around and spent the day with us in Plunge and Plateliai. We met his father Yaakov Bunka and his wife and saw his sculptures and impressive monuments. We visited the memorial places and the graves scattered around the forest.

I came to see Plateliai that my mother remembered so fondly, Plateliai that does not exist any longer, Plateliai that was part of my childhood stories. What was left unchanged from my mother’s childhood in Plateliai is the lake and the forest, still as beautiful as my mother described them many times, still beautiful as they were the day my mother left for Israel, not knowing she would never see again the people and the places she loved so much.

Nothing is left of the rich Jewish life that was in Lithuania before the holocaust. Let my mother’s life and memories be a testimonial of the Jewish life that flourished in the small shtetle near the most beautiful lake Plateliai and the forest around it, where many members of my family were cruelly murdered. If only the forest and lake could speak they would have a lot to tell us. It is for us to remember and pass our memories to future generations.